Life On The Other Side Of The Rainbow: How Food Coloring Elimination Changed Our Child’s Behavior

As a follow-up to my inaugural post Why I’m Over This Rainbow, I want to share how our family life has changed since we ditched the synthetic food coloring.  Since our food coloring elimination in late July 2011, our child’s behavior has changed in several very noticeable ways.  She’s doing a little better in school, she’s able to finish homework without meltdowns, she’s more logical, she sleeps more soundly, she’s able to cope with small set backs, and her handwriting has really improved.  She acts more like sweet Charlie Bucket than Veruca Salt nowadays.

To get to this point, though, we had to do a lot of research and a lot of talking.  I felt that my child needed to be just as educated about unhealthy food additives as her parents.  Teaching children to read labels and ask lots of questions about the food they are offered is so important.  Afterall, they are offered food choices outside the home starting with preschool these days.  They need to be prepared to make the best choices when we’re not around to help.

“There’s no better time to learn.” – Willy Wonka


My child loves to do food investigations while we are grocery shopping.  And it helps keep her busy while we’re doing a mundane task, so that’s a bonus for me.  She loves to wag her finger, Colbert-style, at rows and rows of dyed drinks and snacks.  She politely declines treats from friends at school, camp, and scout meetings…and enthusiastically explains to everyone within earshot that food coloring is bad for people.

She prefers to bring her own lunch to school, and she reads labels before making purchases on “ice cream Fridays”.  I’ve taught her to avoid the school’s “fruit” cocktail (maraschino cherries have red dye), the bread stuffing (contains yellow dyes), the cake with rainbow sprinkles (obvious), and that mythical school vegetable – pizza.  Her teacher asks parents to provide each child’s daily snacks from home, too, so that makes life easier for us.

We have a serious sweet tooth, so it would seem that this adjustment in diet would be extremely hard, especially during the holidays.  Cheap dyed foods are everywhere, and they are aggressively marketed to kids on TV, at restaurants, and through social media.  Luckily, we’re not as limited as Charlie and his grandparents with their cabbage soup diet.

We ask questions at restaurants and carry dye-free treat alternatives with us.  We had to stop eating the free ice cream that comes with Chick-FIL-A’s kids meals because it contains yellow dyes (Sure the indoor playground can help kids run off the sugar, but the effects of food coloring last for days.  Even the sugar-free lemonade causes problems).  So instead, I take her to Whole Foods for dye-free gelato and slushies, find a King Of Pops vendor, or keep all natural ice cream on hand at home.  Jason’s Deli is a nice treat for us with their natural salad bar (which includes gingerbread spice muffins, chocolate mousse, and banana pudding) and their dye-free soft serve chocolate ice cream.  We avoid the red-dyed Indian recipes at favorite restaurants, or make tandoori chicken at home with dye-free spice packets from Whole Foods.

For treats at Halloween and the holidays, I’ve had success ordering online with Indie Candy and Natural Candy Store.  We replaced M&M’s with Sun Drops and Smarties.  We ditched the Oreos for sandwich cookies from Trader Joe’s, Back To Nature, and Whole Foods 365 brand.  Annie’s natural fruit snacks, Surf Sweets gummies, Florida’s Natural nuggets, and Trader Joe’s fruity flakes are good alternatives to traditional gummy bears.  Trader Joe’s organic lollipops are a party hit, and their snack bars are far cheaper than name brand bars in supermarkets.  We replaced Gogurt tubes with the more affordable Trader Joe’s “Squishers” yogurt tubes.

Of course there are other special occasions to navigate around, such as birthday parties and holiday feasts, but shopping and researching online is making things much easier (See Traditions That Make Your Kid Blue for more information).  It’s not hard to make your own food coloring from natural substances, or just order natural food coloring from Natural Candy Store or India Tree Dyes.  You can ask for small samples of natural food coloring from Whole Foods bakeries, and while you’re there, pick up a few pints of their delicious gelato to accompany your kid’s birthday cake.

For some party fun, you can do a Google search of instructions for DIY finger paints, play dough, and face paints.  There are more and more companies making these items from natural ingredients lately too.  See To Dye For: Halloween Isn’t So Scary Without Food Coloring for specific examples.

My own food coloring sensitivity has necessitated lifestyle changes for me, as well (see more in My Rainbow Connection).  No more Coke Zero for me, and it’s just as well, because it was ironically making me fatter anyways.  I use organic soy or coconut milk creamer in my coffee now (creamers can have blue or yellow food coloring), and I take a pass on colorful cocktails.  From now on, I imbibe with wine or dye-free beer (yes, some beers have food coloring).  For something stronger, perhaps a gin and tonic (which my husband nostalgically refers to as “Christmas in a glass”).  I’ve even had to rethink my personal care and cosmetic purchases.

There are occasional slip ups, which reinforce my belief that food coloring is bad for my kid…Like that one time in the early days of our dye-free adventure, when we thought it would be safe to order lemonade in a restaurant.  A fun dinner turned into a loud, emotional crying episode thanks to Yellow 5 food coloring (because, you know, lemon juice is just not, lemon-y enough…).  And that time when I failed to ask questions about some pudding at another favorite restaurant.  So now I carry tiny packets of drink flavoring with me, such as Hanson’s berry or Trader Joes’ lemonade, and ask more questions.  It’s a learning process.

But consider that an elimination diet is FREE and not as hard to do anymore –  try it for just two weeks.  Write down everything you or your child eat, and make notes about behavior too.  Compare school behavior charts from before the test, and after.  I’ve posted a sampling of good sites under my web site Resources section, but a great place to start is the Feingold Association‘s web site.

Please come back here to let everyone know how your food elimination audit went.  And for those of you who have tried this elimination, please share specific ideas that worked for you, in a comment below.  I would personally love to hear how you managed to help your child avoid dyed cakes at their friends’ birthday parties…

Soooo…good things await you at the end of the rainbow…just be sure to use your little pot of gold wisely – shop with your values. 😉

27 Responses to “Life On The Other Side Of The Rainbow: How Food Coloring Elimination Changed Our Child’s Behavior”
  1. Jen says:

    I just want you to know, that your blog helps me realize I am not alone in this battle of my family vs food dye. People think I am crazy, but honestly, going thru all the trouble of avoiding the dyes and all of the extra financial cost is so worth it… Thank you… I am hard core into this battle… and I refuse to lose!

    • Indie Mama says:

      Thank you for your thoughts, vigilance, and encouragement for others. I just read your comment while waiting in line to pick up my daughter, and was so happy that I caught myself loudly cheering, “Good for you, Jen!!” I am glad to meet others who understand. *highfive*

  2. Steph says:

    We are a strict no-dye household. For the past three years, we have stopped at Whole Foods on the way to every single birthday party to pick up a dye-free cupcake. For just $2 and a tiny bit of extra trouble, we have found a solution that works well for us. My mother-in-law suggested that I make a batch of cupcakes and keep them in the freezer for parties, but I know I would just eat them all!

    • Indie Mama says:

      Oh I LOVE that cupcake idea, Steph! My daughter would feel pretty special picking out her own gorgeous cupcake…awesome. And I had NO idea you could freeze cupcakes. Thanks for this valuable information. I’m gonna have to up my gym game now…

  3. Jen says:

    I typed out a long response and it got erased because I typed in the wrong code at the bottom. Ugh.

    Anyway, I wish we had a Whole Foods or Trader Joes closer than 25 minutes away. WHat I do for school birthday parties is I have muffins frozen and just pull them out for my son when needed (he doesn’t really seem to care that they are muffins and not cupcakes). At birthday parties, I have just wiped off the frosting for him and let him eat the cake. Yes, cake has the dye too, but it seems like a good compromise….

    Yesterday was “decorate a gingerbread man cookie” day at school and just last week was “decorate a turkey cookie” day.. To counteract this, we brought in his own homemmade frosting (kept in fridge) and brought sundrops where the kids had M&Ms and he used organic gummy bears instead of candy corn turkey feathers… his teachers say he is so well behaved there… but I explained that “I woudln’t go through all of this trouble if it didnt make a diference for him”… not to mention our food bill has seriously almost tripled! Ugh. THey are supportive in telling me when there will be special days.

    • Indie Mama says:

      Good idea with the muffins and homemade frosting, for people who don’t have specialty stores nearby. I like the way you explained it to the teacher. I think so many teachers really do not know about the food coloring/behavior connection at all. I’ve sent the website link to our school’s nutrition committee chair, but I might send it to the PTA too. I am always amazed at the number of folks who respond with quizzical looks and surprise when I tell them that we have a dye sensitivity. It’s still a mystery, even though folks have been trying to get the word out for almost 40 years. But our school stopped birthday parties in class due to other common allergens, which helps us too by default. So perhaps the leap to understanding food coloring sensitivity will be easier than I think…I will let you know how that goes. And yep our grocery bill is a LOT bigger these days too…I”m trying to use coupons and sales, but hoping that one day, healthy products will be the norm, and cheaper.

  4. Megan sent me over here and I can’t wait to camp out later. Just ordered the Feingold diet for my very aggressive 4yo son. He ate all kinds of crap last week and today he is absolutely impossible – defiant and aggressive. There has to be a connection. I hope this works because discipline sure isn’t 🙁

    • Indie Mama says:

      Hey Missy, I know how frustrating that is when normal discipline just isn’t cutting it with an aggressive child. I sincerely hope that the dietary changes work for you guys. Please keep in touch and let me know how you’re doing. If there is anything I can do to help, let me know!

      • IT’S WORKING.

        It got worse before it got better – but by day 4, he was a different kid. The main thing that he ate consistently was Nutella, which has vanillin. I think vanillin is the culprit in our house.

        I’m not gonna lie – I’m dying for a Diet Coke tho.

        And not having candy canes this Christmas is hard – but the sticker he got at school yesterday for good behavior – a first – makes it all worthwhile!!

        • Indie Mama says:

          Wow! Vanillin affects our daughter too! Nutella tries to make us think they’re stuff is nutritious – ugghh. 🙁 And I’m jonesing for a Coke Zero, feel your pain. Good news about candy canes – you can order them from in a few different sizes. Whole Foods has giant ones too. I am glad that things are changing and CONGRATULATIONS at school! 😉

          • Brittany says:

            Just stumbled upon this. My daughter has a definite reaction to red dye 40, but I’ve never heard of vanillin. Is it just artificial vanillin or is natural vanillin a culprit, too?

          • Indie Mama says:

            Hi Brittany, we use natural vanilla but we avoid “Vanillin” because it has similar effects on our child. It’s apparently a petroleum-based product, just like synthetic food coloring.

          • Brittany says:

            Thanks so much! This could pinpoint our issue!

        • Kate says:

          If you have a Whole foods near you, they have naturally dyed candy canes. They’re expensive, but we appreciate them more.

          • Indie Mama says:

            Did you get the jumbo Hammond’s ones? I found those at my local WF but this batch had caramel coloring in them so I passed…but I found the same jumbo ones made by Hammond’s without the caramel coloring through and I’ll post up the pics on the FaceBook page when they arrive next week. They had mini sized ones too, and normal sized ones. Do you like the flavor alright?

        • Angie says:

          Natural candy store has some great alternatives 🙂 So nice to see so many making this choice!

  5. Dee says:

    I am with you…but I am not as vigilant on the dyes. For starters, we are struggling financially, so shopping at Whole Paycheck is out of the question. I am also severely time-deprived, between work, church, scouts and more. On top of that, my son (who is diagnosed ADHD) seems to be the pickiest kid on the planet. We’ve tried some food swaps that just didn’t ever work out. For instance, he barely eats lunch at school – and I’m talking packed lunches. We finally found that he would eat granola bars and I bought literally every single dye-free version I could find and he didn’t like any of them. It became a choice between his eating something and his eating nothing. So he is on non-dye-free granola bars. It kills me.

    BUT, anything you do to try to get dyes banned and legislated the heck out of our lives, I am ALL FOR! I get SO SICK of hearing that legislating this kind of stuff is stepping on the toes of our business engines. Bah humbug. As a country, we are choosing to support business over people. If Europe can ban this stuff, we can, too!

    • Indie Mama says:

      I am sorry about the finicky eating, that does limit your options. And the Whole Paycheck – YES. I found that we had to increase our grocery budget but try harder to not overspend in other categories, but it can be hard. I have had some luck with sales and printing online manufacturers coupons. I wrote about eating organic on a tight budget in One Moveable Feast and some of the suggestions were to make your own stuff…my friend Heather has a dye-sensitive child and she makes granola with whatever is in her pantry, it’s brilliant. Cereals, flax seeds, raisins or other dried fruit, choccy chips, honey, nuts, etc. She always has sneaky ways to serve her kids healthy stuff that is tasty. She said it may be a time saver to cook large batches of stuff on the same one day each week, then freeze what is not immediately used. I admit I’m not as organized and time-wise as all that, but I find her dedication to be inspiring! If you need some ideas, let me know and I’ll pick her brain.

  6. Kate says:

    By virtue of making lots of things from scratch, we consume very little food dye. But this past week we hosted a cookie decorating party with homemade frosting. I made tons, and we’ve been eating the leftovers. The problem is I used regular food coloring and my daughter’s behavior has been crrrraaaazy! It’s like she lost all of her impulse control. I went out and bought some vegetable based food coloring yesterday (getting home and reading your guest post on Sorta Crunchy was a nice way to reaffirm that fairly expensive purchase!) and cut her off from the icing. I’m hoping this gets better! Thanks for the information.

    • Indie Mama says:

      That is great that you found some dye-free coloring. 🙂 Let me know what you think of how it mixes, etc. I would love to try this.

  7. Kelly says:

    I am so glad I found your site through Simple Organic. I feel like I’m home!
    We’ve been a dye-free family for 2 1/2 years. I notice a HUGE difference in my chidren’s behavior when they have artificial dye. My daughter didn’t sleep through the night for over 6 years until we cut out the dye. My son (a very active child to begin with) becomes aggressive and extremely hyper when he has it.
    At birthday parties if cake is the only dessert (sometimes there’s ice cream they can eat so they just have that) we scrape as much frosting off as we can and prepare for 2-3 days of bad behavior. :Luckily they only go to a party or two a year where this is a problem. For school parties, we keep frozen cupcakes in the nurse’s freezer (frosting squirted inside like a twinkie).
    I’m looking forward to reading all the stories here.

    • Indie Mama says:

      Welcome, I’m glad you’re here! Wow, thanks for posting…the sleep thing blows me away because it took me forever to connect the dots between coloring and sleep disturbances. Red dye does the same thing to my daughter, and to me. We get irritable, more susceptible to anger, less rational. My girl gets physically violent on red dye. I love your idea of keeping frozen muffins at school, that is so great that they are working with you to be supportive like that! How did you explain it to the school?

      • Kelly says:

        We stumbled on the sleep thing by total accident. I orginally started going dye-free because my son broke out in hives on valentines day. After giving him a dose of benedryl (containing red 40) I started googling red dye and hive reactions. I was astounded at all the red 40 & behavior-related articles I found. He was only 3 1/2 at the time but he had problems with aggression at home and daycare that we were trying to correct so I decided to give it a two week trial for the whole family. By the end of the two weeks I realized that my daughter had been sleeping all night and her major mood swings had lessened. My son’s behavior had also improved and he was more able to focus and follow directions (as well as any 3 year old can). We’ve been dye-free ever since.
        We’re hit and miss with understanding at school. At the beginning of each school year I give the classroom teacher and the nurse a copy of a letter I got from the blogger at food dye diaries that basically explains that my children have a reaction to artificial food dye and that because we want them to be successful in school, we hope that they’ll help the children avoid foods with dye. I sometimes also attach an article or two from the CPSID about the science behind food dye & behavior.

  8. Mary Beth says:

    My son has been dye free for a few years now. Our family was becoming dysfunctional due to the outbursts, crying jags, confusion and anger that he had. I started doing some research on the internet and found out about the effects of dye and came home and threw out anything and everything with dye in it. Three days later my boy was back. His concentration had improved as well as his sweet disposition. There wasn’t much of an adjustment for him as far as wanting foods with dye. He has no desire to ever feel like that again and has expressed to me how badly he felt acting out. His older brother helps him read labels if we aren’t present or he asks an adult. He’s super cautious. I feel that he has actually made the rest of us healthier eaters. I have shared our story with several mothers who have followed suit and rid their home of foods with dyes and they were amazed at the results. They couldn’t thank me enough. I will share my story with whoever will listen because I truly feel that we all should be eating dye free because simply, it is unhealthy.

  9. Pam says:

    My son’s bed wetting problem vanished after cutting out artificial colors. That was just the beginning. I’m sure he would be diagnosed ADHD if we did not control his diet. He reads ingredients himself and does very well at checking everything. If the class has a treat that was not expected, he just waits to come home and ask for a treat. Our non artificial treats probably taste better anyway, so I think it is worth the wait.
    This website is fantastic. I find quite a bit of support online but I am tired of people I talk to every day thinking I’m nuts – all of these comments and information make me feel sane!
    It is easy to feel isolated because, food, is a whole job in itself around our house, and is an afterthought for many people, as it used to be for me. We are all feeling much more healthy, so it is worth it.

  10. Breeze says:

    I am writing a paper on food dye and have decided to go dye free. i am eleven and i still wet the bed an i have eczama so i hope this works. Thanks!

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